When Army Reserve Maj. Clay Keel is in uniform, he plans military medical operations by organizing personnel and logistics as part of the Army Medical Service Corps. Off duty, he runs the Keel and Curley Winery and Keel Farms Agrarian Ale + Cider brewery in Plant City, Florida.
In many ways, the two jobs aren’t so different. Both require problem solving and teamwork skills that service members learn early on, Keel said.
“The further up you go, the more civilian the training kind of becomes,” he said. “You start learning about how to make decisions, how to allocate resources and plan for resources, and then you go beyond that … where the Army teaches you about strategy.”
For small business owners like Keel who serve in the military part time, continuing their service while also running a brewing business can be rewarding — a way to stay connected to the military while also pursuing entrepreneurial passions.
“In my Army Reserve career, I’m never going to be a general because I’m not putting in the time and doing those really challenging jobs that are going to lead me to that. But I’m still able to serve in a role that takes a less amount of time, or at least it gives me more flexibility,” he said.
Keel’s father started the Keel and Curley Winery at Keel Farms, where Keel grew up, in 2003. In his twenties at the time, Keel owned the wine distribution part of the business while his dad ran the winery. He recently bought the entire business from his father and, after nearly two decades of service in the National Guard, active-duty Army and Reserve, including two deployments to Iraq, Keel said it’s time to focus on the company.
“Unless I get orders and I get called up and my country needs me — day to day, the business comes first,” he said.
Balancing the two careers isn’t always easy, however, and requires some difficult choices.
“Sometimes that means telling the military like, ‘Hey I can’t take that job.’ And I’ve made that decision,” Keel said.
Army veteran Torie Fisher also faced a difficult choice in 2016 — continuing her 13-year military career or getting out of the New Jersey Army National Guard as a Black Hawk crew chief to pursue her Backward Flag Brewery business full time. After about a year of overlap, she decided to choose one instead of letting both suffer.
“It being such a new venture — and it’s a very hands-on type business — it was kind of difficult to do both,” she said.
So, Fisher found her niche by staying connected to the military in other ways as she grew her business, which supplies beer to MetLife Stadium, home of the New York Giants and Jets.
She attended a veteran entrepreneurship training through Bunker Labs and has almost exclusively hired veterans or veteran spouses at her company, named for a patch on the Army uniform. Staff frequently donate a portion of their tips to military charities.
Fisher also operates the nonprofit Arms 2 Artisans, working with Post-9/11 veterans interested in artisan trades.
“Everything that we do is based and rooted in the veteran community,” she said.
Both Fisher and Keel said their military-learned skills go a long way in the brewing business.
“In business, things never really ever go right or the way that you expected them to,” Fisher said. “The military does a good job of teaching us how to bounce back from those failures. You never just get to screw something up and just sit there and say, ‘I guess it’s never going to work out, I give up.’”
The Army also helped both entrepreneurs be better leaders. And for Keel, staying in the military has had its perks in that regard. For times when he is activated, including recently for COVID-19 response efforts, he needs to train others to run things well in his absence.
“In the long run I think it helps you work on the business instead of in the business, which I think a lot of entrepreneurs struggle with,” he said. “The Army Reserve forces that on me a little bit, and I think there are some positives to that.”